Letter from the Editor: Medicine’s March Madness

As part of our mission to focus on physician wellness, we thought it would be fun to have an issue focused on a theme many of us use as a vehicle for work-life balance: sports! Finding stories and sources around this subject was not difficult. When we came up with the idea to write a story on otolaryngologists who served as team physicians for professional sports teams, we had more than 10 surgeons to speak to. We have otolaryngologists who have been professional athletes, Olympic athletes, and major boosters of athletic teams, and we even have one otolaryngologist who has had the experience of hiring and firing a Division I football coach and athletic director. College athletics is a passion for many otolaryngologists (just ask any Ohio State alumnus), and March Madness is college basketball’s three-week long tournament that consumes the work force and has even the non-sports aficionado searching the internet for tips on how to best fill out their office pool bracket.

So what is the otolaryngology version of March Madness? That would have to be the Otolaryngology Residency Match, which also takes place in March of every calendar year. The residency match is similar to March Madness in many ways. The college basketball season is five months long and comes down to three weeks to crown the champion. Months of residency interviews, letter writing, and phone calls come down to one day to find out who we will spend the next five years training.

Teams such as the University of Virginia, a No. 1 seed in 2018 that many expected to win the National Championship, lost in the first round to tiny UMBC, learning the hard way that you can never take anyone for granted. Otolaryngology as a specialty learned a similar lesson. For as long as I can remember, otolaryngology has been one of the most competitive residencies to match into. As a specialty, we enjoyed having the best and brightest apply to our programs. In fact, the match got so competitive that otolaryngology soon began to get a reputation amongst medical students and deans of medical schools. Students who didn’t have top Step 1 scores and grades were dissuaded from applying. We subjected the students to special interviews and made them submit written paragraphs in order to select the most competitive applicants. There was an air of superiority that filled many of our programs, as we rested on our laurels and stopped looking for talented medical students, assuming they would come to us. Because of this, the applicant pool, albeit as talented as ever, shrunk in size, and for two years, we were left with more residency spots than applicants.

In sports as well as in medicine, learning from our failures is a hallmark of resilience. In 2019, the University of Virginia again entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed. This time they came prepared and have since won their first two games of the tournament. Otolaryngology learned a lesson from the 2018 match, as we quickly began to acknowledge our missteps and look for ways to improve our match results. We began to understand that there are many more things other than a high Step 1 score that go into making a wonderful otolaryngology resident. Departments made tremendous efforts to reinvigorate their student interest groups and began new programs to expose pre-clinical students to the field. We began to show our appreciation to the applicants during interviews. Instead of the usual box lunch, programs were treating applicants to five-course steak dinners and guided tours of their campuses and cities. Much like the UVA basketball team, our efforts have been rewarded, as we have seen an explosion in the number of applicants. We have again become one of the most competitive specialties, and the residency match of 2019 was an extremely successful one for the field.

Much like the winner of this year’s tournament, we should take the time to celebrate our achievements but know that we can’t rest on our laurels. To continue this success, we must continue to work hard to find and attract students who are talented, diverse, and hungry for success.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to connecting next month.

—Alex

ENT Today